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Luis Von Ahn

Luis Von Ahn

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'Nova scienceNOW'Offbeat science tales light up 'Nova' Tuesday, June 30th 2009, 4:00 AM NovaPBS' fast-paced science magazine series NOVA scienceNOW returns in summer 2009.OverviewRelated NewsArticles'Billie Jean' is top Jacko tribute tuneThe future of 'Pitchmen': Billy Mays death leaves show in limboVH1 adding Chilli, Pepa to its mixAnyone who tunes into the scene where Neil deGrasse Tyson sings in the shower on tonight's "Nova scienceNow" season premiere could be excused for getting a little bit scared.

Happily, that scene is misleading.

The show is still about science, not about the host performing in a shower cap.

"Nova" does, however, explore some other offbeat regions of science, stretching the traditional definition when it sees a chance to have some fun.

Most strikingly in tonight's opener, that includes a segment on Luis von Ahn, a computer game nut and programming genius who invented a system that thwarts billions of spam messages daily.

Von Ahn cheerfully admits that given his druthers, he'd watch TV most of the time - no big surprise, he enjoys shows like "Fringe" - but he also likes figuring out ways to make humans and computers get along better.

He turned down a lot of money from companies like Google to work at Carnegie Mellon University, though he got something of a consolation prize: a half-million-dollar MacArthur "genius" grant.

Tyson gracefully steps aside to let von Ahn carry that segment but, as is his style, he becomes much more prominent in a segment on how recording devices now can identify and correct problems with pitch in a recorded voice.

In fact, they can correct problems as they are occurring - like, for instance, in a live performance.

So a singer who seems to be hitting all the notes tonight may in reality just be getting close enough so they can be fixed.

Tyson uses his own rather off-key singing to illustrate how the process works.

In the end, the computer makes him sound a lot better, though the operator gently points out that there has to be some talent there in the first place or else even the computer won't make it sound more like bad singing that's on key.

He takes the straightforward approach, again, to the show's most significant segment: how a company is creating artificial diamonds that not only will look good on wedding rings, but could someday replace silicon as the best conductivity chip on electronic devices.

"Silicon," says one developer, "is so 20th century." Tyson also reports on something many people may have forgotten: the anthrax attacks that occurred in the weeks after 9/11.

He traces how scientists tracked the anthrax back to its apparent point of origin and identified the man most likely to have had some involvement.

Alas, we may never know for sure, because he committed suicide.

With a few brief and self-aware exceptions, the new season of "Nova" is on key and on point.

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http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/tv/2009/06/30/2009-06-30_offbeat_science_tales_light_up_nova.html
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